There are many definitions of leadership. Many lines have been written attempting to capture the essence of leadership in just a few words.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of leadership is simply:
"The action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this."
We need now to define 'lead' in this context, which is more helpful to appreciating the breadth and depth of the word leadership. Here are the most relevant points from the dictionary:
- Be in charge or command
- Organize and direct
- Set a process in motion
- Be a reason or motive for (others to act, change, etc)
Note that only the first point strongly implies that leadership depends on a single leader, and even this point may easily be interpreted to mean that leadership can be achieved by delegated responsibility, even through a number of levels and on a vast scale.
Note also that the last two points do not restrict leadership to the leading of an organized group of people such as a business or other provider of services/products, etc. The last two points broaden the scope of leadership to anyone, or any collective of people, who inspires or motivates other people to act in some way towards some sort of aim or task or outcome.
To do this well at any level is not simple, just as defining leadership is not simple either.
Some writers understandably make fun of poor leadership, because much poor leadership happens, especially at very high levels.
A leadership definition is obviously quite limited because it's only a few words or a couple of sentences.
Some definitions of leadership convey a particular essence of leadership very well, but that is all a single definition can represent - just an essence.
Any single definition of leadership can only attempt to convey the essence or most important quality of leadership from a particular standpoint or point of view.
A standpoint of leadership tends to dictate the definition.
- an ethical standpoint will produce a definition of leadership focused on ethics.
- a results standpoint will produce a definition of leadership focused on results or achieving an end result.
- a communications and motivational standpoint will produce a definition of leadership focused on communication with and motivating followers.
- and so on.
Therefore when we try to understand leadership we should avoid placing too much reliance on a single definition, or even several definitions of leadership, and especially when we try to explain leadership to others.
Definitions of leadership do not explain leadership - leadership definitions can at best merely convey the essence of leadership from a particular point of view.
To understand, explain, and apply leadership, we must be able to describe leadership in greater depth.
What is leadership?
It is very hard to define the meaning of leadership, but there are certain traits that we can attribute to good leaders. All good leaders inspire a vision amongst their followers and set a direction for performance that they expect to be followed. Their main skill is making people around them work hard, not because they are told to, but because they want to. They are often described as dynamic and inspirational and set tasks that are fun, yet challenging. Motivation is a key skill required to be a good leader, encouraging others to work hard because they want to work hard for their leader.
Transformational leadership is often cited as the closest model to what we call 'traditional' leadership. This model tells us that an effective leader has the following attributes:
1. Creates an inspiring vision for the future.
Creating a vision is important as it acts as an end goal to direct and motivate your team members. This gives direction to all actions of your team members and can also act as a point of reference after the task is complete. The vision created will be based on likely changes in the business environment, competitors' movements and the future behaviours of consumers. The key skills of a leader here are to first correctly predict a likely future scenario, and then to convince their team that reaching it will benefit everyone.
2. Motivates and inspires people to engage with that vision.
Creating the vision is not enough to generate hard work and passion, the vision must inspire and motivate employees to work hard. If the vision is likely to lead to major changes to established processes and take a long time to reach it is likely, at some point during the process, that support for it will decrease. For this reason, it is an important task for leaders to consistently build and maintain support for the vision. One way of doing this is to emphasise that the vision will bring about positive changes for the organisation, and these changes will have positive implications for the employees themselves, such as financial rewards. Employees will be motivated by the thought of the organisation progressing, but also by their potential personal gains.
3. Is responsible for their team's delivery of that vision.
This area of leadership has many crossovers with the skill of management. Delivering the vision involves setting out a plan of action, delegating tasks, monitoring and rewarding progress throughout the process and assessing the success when the goal is reached.
4. Coaches and mentors their team members to maximise their individual effectiveness and the effectiveness of their team.
It is unlikely a leader will already have a team of high-performing individuals that complement each other to create the most effective team possible. Therefore, it is important they develop their team members' skills and build an effective team. This may be done by delegating responsibility, transferring skills or formal training. Regardless of the stage of the process, continuous development of individuals and the team is key to maintaining success. Developing leadership potential within your team is crucial for the future success of the organisation.
Leadership is not as effective unless it is also supported by good management, as we will discuss throughout this course. Find out more about what Forbes believe it is to be a leader here.
Why is it important?
Good leadership is often cited as the key reason for organisational success. A leader who inspires their workforce to consistently perform at the highest level is likely to see success resonate throughout the organisation. Strong leadership also has the power to develop more leaders. This can be very effective as it means new leaders are developed internally, rather than hiring externally. It also ensures the leaders who are developed understand the values and processes within the company. Good leadership also instills a culture within the company where everyone is willing to work hard for each other. This resonates throughout the whole organisation and is an excellent way of ensuring performance remains high.
Regardless of your organisation's talent, model or assets, without strong leadership performance can remain low. Strong leadership ties these factors together to create a high-performance organisation. An organisation can theoretically have the potential for success, but only leadership can put this potential into action and deliver tangible results. Leaders can be particularly important in times of change or weak performance. Here, they have the skills to increase motivation and morale and guide the organisation through troubled times.
What can you learn about leadership?
Many people believe that good leaders are born with those attributes and the skills they have cannot be taught to others. This is simply not true, learning about theories and models, face-to-face training and experience can be combined to develop a strong leader, regardless of their natural abilities. In fact, even the greatest leaders are constantly learning and are likely to have learnt most of their leadership skills from someone else. The important thing is to never believe you have learnt all there is to know and to keep developing skills and learning from new experiences.
Building this set of skills and becoming an effective leader can make you a very valuable asset to any organisation and is likely to see you financially rewarded for the skills you develop. There is no 'one size fits all' style of leadership and no two leaders are the same. Therefore, as you develop your own leadership technique you should not worry that it is not straight out of the textbook. Leadership models and styles are simply guidelines for how you should think about developing your leadership skill-set.